Rethinking Relationships: Kenyan community research

JC Niala tells us how the Rethinking Relationships and Building Trust around African Collections project has changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges faced for museums and the Kenyan community.

Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunities to engage in person with community members from Kenya were curtailed.

JC Niala is the African Collections Researcher at the Horniman, coordinating the project Rethinking Relationships. JC was meant to travel to Kenya in the spring of 2020 to participate in a series of workshops entitled Object Movement Dialogues with project partners, International Inventories Programme (IIP), people from the National Museums of Kenya, and community members from across the country. The workshops were meant to be an exchange.

JC had planned to share information about the collections held across four museums in the UK:

  • Horniman Museums and Gardens
  • Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge
  • Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford
  • World Museum, Liverpool

She was also going to listen to and engage with participant’s thoughts on what they felt the futures of the collections should be. This became impossible due to the pandemic.

Despite the challenges presented by coronavirus, JC was keen that the work on the Kenyan collections should continue, following a successful community visit from Maasai peoples from Kenya and Tanzania in February, to three of the four museums.

JC felt strongly that in order for stakeholders in Kenya to be able to consider the collections futures, they first had to have some knowledge about what the collections from Kenya were. There is still relatively little known about the objects in the collections and over 90% of the objects are not on display in the museums.

The challenges of the pandemic also meant that there were people in Kenya who were struggling, and it seemed like the project could be a way to offer some practical support.

Working with a decolonised methodology, JC wanted to understand the barriers community members face when trying to work with online collections.

Some of the challenges were local to Kenya, such as access to the internet.

Other barriers were to do with the ways in which online collections were set up in museums. Language was one such issue, whether museum terminology or culturally inappropriate terms.

Community members also felt that they needed guidance to understand how the museums worked. Others had never carried out research in a formal institution, and although they were keen to do so, wanted some training tools.

In order to facilitate the continuation of the work on the Kenyan collections, JC Niala and Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp (Deputy Keeper of Anthropology) collaboratively developed a toolkit with community researchers in Kenya. The toolkit contains information to help community researchers navigate the collections across the four museums involved in the project. This toolkit includes research guidance, explains museum terminology and contains videos from museum staff that supports their socially distanced entry into the museums.

JC worked with Juma Ondeng of IIP ( based in Kenya) to secure internet access for each of the researchers.

In July, a Zoom workshop including directors and staff from each of the museums as well as 18 community researchers from Kenya launched the new phase of the project.

Each researcher was commissioned to work with 15 objects of their choice from across the four museum’s collections.

The researchers came from varying backgrounds and different levels of museum experiences. Some worked in the National Museums of Kenya, others worked in NGOs. There were creative professionals, business people, and those who had never carried out research in a museum before. Over the course of a month, there were two more project workshops and the researchers produced a wide range of outputs.

These outputs of their research are currently being incorporated into museum databases and will also be made available through the Horniman and project website.

Read community researcher, Akinyi Nyakwar Anuro​’s response to participating in this project.